Sunday, 20 February 2011

Looking for clues

A gap in the diary meant I could rediscover the lost art of spontaneity by taking in the rescheduled Totesport Trophy meeting at Newbury on Friday. This was the meeting abandoned last week after the horrific electrocution of two horses in the paddock. Southern Electricity had dug up a chunk of previously dead cabling and had declared the site safe.

So off I set, eschewing the rubber soled wellies and instead trusting the reassurances of the course management.  It was an important meeting and very rare that a whole card is rescheduled. So credit to the course for getting it on. The prize money had taken a battering, in anticipation of reduced revenue on the day, but the card was still very strong and packed with horses needing an outing before Cheltenham.

They weren’t alone. I’d been off the track myself since June (The Oaks) and needed a good blow to get me spot on for Cheltenham. I was feeling rusty and I knew I’d come on massively for a trot round Newbury’s bookie pitches, Tote booths, bars and restaurants. A public schooling of my betting strategies would ensure my A game was ready for the Festival.  

Newbury's Berkshire Stand: very quiet
On the train over, I was sat next to a gaggle of journos, tipsters and media types. There was a bit of moaning about the early start. “Paying peak rate fares not my cup of tea. Tried to get out of this one. Would have preferred Sandown. Didn’t work. Bladdy hell”. I’d settle for a job covering the races, blimey! Miserable sods.

It was an early start though, it’s true. A crucial part of the restaging was securing telly coverage. Channel 4 came up trumps, but at the cost of an early finish so that Countdown didn’t get knocked off its usual perch. Breakfast at Tiffany’s had got the push from the afternoon schedule. No worries. I’d had Breakfast at Bagel Express.

It was battleship grey and low visibility at the track. And freezing cold. But the paddock had been repaired. Scarred but repaired.  At the very least, I’d like to think that’s how racing would be at the end of the day.
Parade ring showing the strip where the electricity cable was removed 
A decent handicap first up, won by 14-1 outsider, Stow. My selection was third, and hard on the steel two out, but ultimately well beaten. The winner was ridden by Aiden Coleman. Checking Twitter updates over a beer shortly afterwards, I noted his confident tweet “Job done at Newbury, now on way to Sandown”. Not misplaced confidence either as he rode a double there, including another 14-1 shot.

By now the crowd had thickened a little, but to no more than a respectable and understated gathering of weekday greys and browns, rather than a frivolous and colourful exposition of weekend celebration. With one exception….

Royal Ascot style at a grey and drab Newbury
This all meant that I had a perfect, uncluttered view of the beasts for the AON Chase in the parade ring. Odds-on favourite and potential Gold Cup combatant What A Friend looked a bit edgy, highly strung and fractious. Does that make any difference? Dunno. He’s part owned by Alex Ferguson, but there was no sign of the United manager amongst the suited and booted in the middle. I did see his trainer, Paul Nicholls and his able deputy, Dan Skelton though. The latter was being interviewed by Alice Plunkett from Channel 4. He’s a dashing lad and had our Alice was bucking and squealing behind the microphone like a two-year old racecourse maiden.

Fair Along caught my eye. From the Philip Hobbs yard, he was a little fella. Bit of a show-off too, tossing his head around and eye-balling everyone at close range. But he was tiny. How could he jump out of stodgy ground over those big fences for three miles? Then he had a big old turn out on his final circuit of the ring (I’m no expert, but they looked like healthy stools – definitely three weetabix for breakfast), so that might make the take-offs a bit easier. Dance Island was looking composed, compared to the other bunch. A big outsider too. So I fancied him to beat the non-stayers and make the frame. His trainer Ben Case helped jockey Daryl Jacob up into the plate. Immediately Daryl seemed more taken with the stable girl than with settling his charge. Worrying signs.

Good race, too. Noland made the pace fairly early on, jostling with Fair Along and the other outsider, Carronhills. My boy, Dance Island was nicely in touch for much of the race and I was fully expecting him to stay on past tired horses up the straight and chase home What A Friend. That’s what my Exacta said anyway. But the confirmed none-staying, ground-hating Noland galloped and jumped them all into submission. My lad clouted every fence down the back straight and was hung out to dry very early. Up the home straight, Noland was very tired. What A Friend began to get his act together, but was switched right by rookie jockey Harry Skelton and lost some valuable ground. Meanwhile Fair Along had sprouted wings and was flying up the straight too. He was relishing this tough test. Brave little horse ably demonstrating the value of a pre-race poo. What A Friend failed to get to Noland by a head, with Far Along ¾ length further back. Excellent finish, though, perhaps harshly, I’d say it has to go down as jockey error because of Skelton’s move after the last. Those Skelton’s eh? One flirting with the presenter, the other flirting with disaster. Hope Harry braced himself for the inevitable Fergie hairdryer. Dance Island lumbered in last.

Time to eat. 
Pick a seat....any seat

Special of the Day: Any pie, mushy peas and gravy. £4.90

The restaurants in the Dubai Duty Free Stand were completely deserted. I wasn’t complaining. This meant I had good sightlines right across the pie counter and was able to choose my chicken, leak and mushroom pie, mushy peas and gravy with unhurried precision and demolish with unhindered relish. Who needs Breakfast at Tiffany’s when you can have lunch at the Celtic Pie Co?  (Am I overdoing this now?)

French Opera was a treat to watch in the Game Spirit Chase. This gluey ground can’t have been ideal for him, but he looked like poetry in motion to me. Bags of ability. Could he be a threat in the Queen Mother at festival? Better ground would suit and I swear he’s still on the upgrade. I tried to get a photo on my poxy phone camera as they sailed over the water jump. Bloody shutter delay. Missed ‘em. I tried later in the novice chase. This time I tried to anticipate the glorious leap of Aighteen Thirtythree who jumped his rivals legless. But no. Too early this time. I scowled at the screen. Bloke next to me grins and says, “Missed ‘em didn’t you?” “Bloody technology.” I mutter.

Phonecameracockup - too late
Phonecameracockup - too early

Back in the Berkshire Stand, I was taking a leak in the well appointed gents. I came across a smug looking chap in a Ben Case Racing jacket. Well, I gave him both barrels for the lamentable performance of his horse Dance Island on the track today; and particularly the unprofessional attitude of his jockey. This lad might have been only eight years old, and possibly the son of Ben Case himself. But in my eyes he’s got to take responsibility at some stage! This jumps game is no game you know.

The Totesport Trophy was the day’s feature. Entries were down to 15 from Saturday’s original 23, but it was still a very competitive affair. Nicky Henderson was mob-handed with top weight Solix, Swinton Hurdle winner Eradicate and Triumph hero Soldatino. Walk On was favourite, heading a market stuffed with more plots than a suburban housing redevelopment. I was on two of them: Irish raider (had to be) Sweet My Lord from Willie Mullins’ yard and Bothy from arch-plotter Brian Ellison. The race was typical hell-for-leather. I was desperate for Solix to be given a bad ride so that I could say ‘jockey David Bass looks like a fish out of water, flapping around in the saddle’. But he didn’t, so I can’t. 

Bothy was up with the pace from early. Two separate incidents at the second last took out three or four contenders who were readying their challenges. Recession Proof came through to take it up at the last and seemed to have repelled Bothy. But he came back for more and they were both all-out to the line, with Recession Proof prevailing by a short head. Thrilling stuff though.

Upstairs in the Berkshire Stand lounge, munching on packet of overpriced hand cut (I just don’t believe it!) kettle chips, I overheard connections of the winner toast “To the County Hurdle!” There was 8 or 10 in the group, all turned out in their refined finest, and they’d had a great day. Good luck at the festival. I’ll be watching with interest.

I had a couple more close 2nds in the remaining races, but didn’t trouser any wedge. Ericht looked the real deal in the bumper, as a watery sun fleetingly broke through the cloud. Trainer Nicky Henderson was later quoted on the horse’s prospects in the Champion Bumper: “I hate the frigging race, but I suppose he’ll have to run in it!”  Yet another Festival clue on a day of top quality action when racing did indeed start to throw off its gloomy mood. Job done, as Aiden Coleman might have said. 

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